This November we are focusing on issues surrounding men and alcohol. We have invited Marcus Barnes to write a series of articles tackling some of these. Marcus is an author, journalist and copywriter. He has almost two decades of writing experience across a broad range of topics. He’s written three books and has a book on sobriety in the pipeline. In his second piece for Club Soda, Marcus shares his experience of socialising with male friends, and have drinking buddies as a sober person. His first guest article was about mental health and becoming a parent.
Socialising, remember that? A part of life that a lot of people are no doubt craving right now. We’ve had little tastes of it here and there, especially over the summer, but for the most part, government guidelines in the UK and other parts of the world have put a halt to the social aspect of life in 2020. Still, someday soon we’ll be able to do it again and when that day comes it would be handy to be prepared to do it with a more mindful approach to drinking.
“Societal conditioning has cultivated a culture of masculinity that is inherently reliant on alcohol to excavate and exorcise difficult emotions.”
For a lot of men social occasions often involve alcohol consumption, whether that’s an expensive whisky during a smoky game of late-night poker, a few pints at the ‘19th hole’ after a round of golf, football down the pub, a boozy business lunch, or a proper night out with drinking buddies. As I always say, it’s not very often that two blokes will go out for a coffee and a natter. Not that it doesn’t happen at all, but it’s not as common for guys to meet up for coffees as it is for women. We’re just programmed in a different way. Societal conditioning has cultivated a culture of masculinity that is inherently reliant on alcohol to excavate and exorcise difficult emotions and give us the armour we need to get out there and bond with other men.
Alcohol doesn’t only play a role in enhancing social interaction while it’s happening, it also affects the build up to a social situation. Many drinkers associating booze with increased self confidence before they’ve even had their first drink. We all know the feeling of being more ‘fun/sexy/confident/funny/lively/daring’ when we’ve had a few. This leads to an expectation that alcohol makes us more sociable, one which has been scientifically proven to be true.
“Alcohol especially seems to facilitate smiling in men. They need it more than women, who experience more similar bonding effects when they are sober.”
Alcohol’s role in socialising
A study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh in 2012 explored the role of alcohol in social bonding among a test group of 720 people (360 men and 360 women), who were divided into groups of three. Some were given alcohol, while others were given a placebo. The findings demonstrated that men found it easier to bond when they’d been drinking. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and, for men especially, makes it easier to express themselves and connect with one another. University researchers found that the men who were drinking tended to smile at each other more than the ones who stayed sober during the experiment. Dr. Michael Sayette, lead author of the study, told the Daily Mail, “Alcohol especially seems to facilitate smiling in men. They need it more than women, who experience more similar bonding effects when they are sober.”
It’s crucial to note that alcohol also increases the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward centre, the part of the brain that reacts to pleasurable activity. According to research, this happens more in men than it does with women.
“Alcohol is the only drug on Earth where you have to explain why you’re not using it.”
Starting out as drinking buddies
My earliest days of drinking were in my mid-teens, with my schoolmates, in bars and pubs around Lewisham, south-east London. Since we were already very familiar with each other through being at school together, you’d think we could have just hung out without the need to drink. But beers were knocked back without a second thought because it’s just what you do. You morph from friends into drinking buddies. Part of growing up, part of the transition from boy to man, a rite of passage that becomes standard practice.
I never questioned it, it became the norm for pretty much every social engagement I had with my male friends. Nights out, lads’ holidays, pub lunches, birthday meals, house parties and many park bench sessions, all facilitated by the use of alcohol. It becomes the norm because for most of us it is the norm in our society and saying no is considered going against the grain. There’s a quote that says, “Alcohol is the only drug on Earth where you have to explain why you’re not using it”, which is very apt.
“It was a pattern, a rigid pattern locked into my subconscious that I could not escape from because I didn’t even know I was in it.”
Throughout adulthood it was always the same way, amplified by social anxiety. If I was meeting someone at a bar and I got there first I would have to order a drink to settle my nerves as I waited on my own. A couple of drinks led to more, and more, then some shots and more drinks. It was a pattern, a rigid pattern locked into my subconscious that I could not escape from because I didn’t even know I was in it. Normal behaviour for a normal lad having normal experiences. This is how it is and there is no other way, that’s how it felt.
When booze becomes a crutch
My career has enabled me access to free drinks and guestlist to parties and events for the best part of 20 years now. As a music journalist this has been par for the course. Reviewing clubs, concerts or festivals usually involves being the recipient of drinks tokens from the promoter. It’s one of the first things that you encounter. And you can often be working alone, which means you lean on booze as a social crutch. There may be some interviews involved too. Whatever happens, you’re meeting new people and in a social environment on your own, so the bar becomes a safe space and booze the tonic to any anxiety you’re feeling. Perhaps a little different from what a lot of other men go through, but that’s my experience.
“Breaking the habit of a lifetime means work. Hard work. Work that you have to do every day.”
How do you break the pattern? Overcoming the powerful effect of dopamine release is a monumental task, especially when it’s compounded by the feeling of becoming a better person. Especially when it might be the only way you know how to bond with other men. Breaking the habit of a lifetime means work. Hard work. Work that you have to do every day. On a scientific level you’re working to rewire your brain, literally. Forming new neural pathways that bypass the old circuit – BEER = REWARD = BETTER ME – and creating new, mindful and, ultimately, more rewarding pathways.
It won’t feel more rewarding at first though, believe me. As if it’s not hard enough giving yourself the responsibility of managing your alcohol intake, you must also do battle with the influence of other people. Peer pressure and fielding all manner of questions about why you’re not drinking (as the earlier quote highlighted) will be among the regular battles you’ll have to prepare yourself for. Through reading posts by other sober people on Instagram I’ve discovered that some people find it easier to just lie and say they’re a recovering addict than have to go through the process of explaining why they’re being more mindful about their alcohol intake. If that works for you, go for it.
“Almost everyone I’ve spoken to has been curious and revealed that they’ve wanted to drink less, or maybe even give up altogether.”
Forging true friendships with drinking buddies
Personally, I’ve always been honest and given a little bit of background about myself and why I’m not drinking. Because of the increasing awareness around mental health and drinking, most people are understanding. Some even find it inspiring and almost everyone I’ve spoken to has been curious and revealed that they’ve wanted to drink less, or maybe even give up altogether. Always speak to someone you trust about what you’re doing and how you’re feeling, you will need their support. There may be real friends among your drinking buddies, if you give them a chance. And true friends will stand by you and give you all the help you need to do what you need to do.
“Be patient with yourself, forgive yourself if you slip up and have a binge, and remember you’re only human.”
You have to go easy on yourself. The mind will play all kinds of mental gymnastics in order to keep hold of its precious dopamine hits; boredom, depression, low self-esteem, low energy, sadness, anger… it will pull out all of the tricks it can to lure you back to the bar for another drink. One of the biggest tricks my mind pulled on me was telling me I was boring and that it would be awkward not being ‘on the same level’ as the other people I was with.
This was all proven wrong many times, in particular when I went to Ibiza for a stag do and partied all weekend long, staying up til beyond sunrise with my drinking buddies every morning across a long weekend. It can be done, believe me. How did I do it? I made sure they were all aware that I wasn’t drinking, but I didn’t make a big deal of it. I made sure to have enough rest so that I had the energy to go for it when required.
The mindful drinking path is perhaps one of the biggest challenges you might ever set yourself. It’s choosing to make life harder for yourself, rewiring your brain, doing the opposite to friends and defying societal norms. It’s a lot to commit to. So be patient with yourself, forgive yourself if you slip up and have a binge, and remember you’re only human.